2020-2021 FIDE Candidates Preview: Where Do The Players Stand?
Ian Nepomniachtchi resigns his game vs. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in round seven. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

2020-2021 FIDE Candidates Preview: Where Do The Players Stand?‎

PeterDoggers
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The FIDE Candidates Tournament will finally resume exactly a week from now, on April 19, 2021. What have the eight participants been up to in the past 13 months? And how have they performed?

The story is known: on March 25, 2020, the FIDE Candidates Tournament was stopped after a governmental announcement that Russia's air traffic would be halted due to the coronavirus pandemic. After failed attempts to continue in the second half of 2020, the tournament is finally going to resume, 391 days after the last moves were made in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

Here are the standings halfway through the tournament and the starting point next week.

Round 7 Standings

# Fed Name Rtg Perf 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Score SB
1 Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime 2767 2876 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 4.5/7 15.25
2 Nepomniachtchi, Ian 2774 2875 0 ½ 1 1 ½ 1 ½ 4.5/7 14.25
3 Caruana, Fabiano 2842 2764 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 1 3.5/7 12.25
4-5 Giri, Anish 2763 2775 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 3.5/7 11.25
4-5 Wang, Hao 2762 2775 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 3.5/7 11.25
6 Grischuk, Alexander 2777 2773 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 3.5/7 12.25
7 Ding, Liren 2805 2667 0 0 1 ½ 0 ½ ½ 2.5/7 8.25
8 Alekseenko, Kirill 2698 2683 ½ ½ 0 0 ½ ½ ½ 2.5/7 9.25

(Tiebreaks: 1. Mutual score, 2. Number of wins, 3. Sonneborn-Berger.)

The eighth round, on April 19, will be an important one right away. GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who leads the tournament on tiebreak, is playing with the black pieces against top seed GM Fabiano Caruana, the pre-tournament favorite as the winner of the previous Candidates. GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, also on 4.5/7, is White against GM Anish Giri, one of four players on 3.5/7 who are hoping to catch the leaders as soon as possible.

You can find the pairings and the games of the first seven rounds on our new events page, which will also be an excellent location to follow the tournament live.

FIDE Candidates Tournament Results
The FIDE Candidates Tournament on Chess.com/events.

In an earlier preview article, GM Alex Yermolinsky shared his thoughts about who he thinks will win this Candidates Tournament—by looking at how the last four editions, with the same format, progressed. In this article, we'll look at the chess played by the eight participants in the last 13 months, in order of the current standings.

As a source, we are using a database based on The Week in Chess. Mark Crowther has continued collecting all major chess events, even though most of these were played online under faster time controls than usual.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Vachier-Lagrave has been one of the most active players since the end of the Candidates, with a total of 546 official games. However, only 18 of those games were actually played over the board with a standard time control.

MVL was one of the players who competed in the Bundesliga in September. He scored a solid plus three back then, with wins against GM Andreas Heimann, GM Niclas Huschenbeth, and GM Aryan Tari, and draws with GM Luke McShane and Vladimir Malakhov.

A more significant test was the Tata Steel Chess Tournament this January, where MVL scored a very disappointing 5/13. He lost four games, two of these against a rivals in the Candidates, Caruana and Giri. He won one game:

When people pointed out to MVL that both Caruana in 2018 and GM Sergey Karjakin in 2016 had bad Wijk aan Zee tournaments before winning the Candidates, he said: "I didn't do this on purpose if that's the question! It's definitely a good thing that it happens here and not in the Candidates but there is still a lot of work to do to make it not happen in the Candidates."

On his blog, MVL wrote: "Concerning the overall analysis of my tournament, I’m not going to beat around the bush, it was clearly a failure all way long. Obviously, there were a lot of things that didn’t work. Having said that, I prefer to take this as a no-cost warning and frankly, I don’t expect to show this terrible level of play in the Candidates. In any case, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen 🙂 .

Online, MVL has scored mixed results. In the first event of what would later become the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour, the Frenchman finished in last place in the Swiss part. After that, he drew eight of his games in the Online Nations Cup but did beat Nepomniachtchi. He then finished last in the group phase of the Chessable Masters.

However, it seems that MVL has become stronger in online chess. At the end of 2020, he eliminated none other than GM Magnus Carlsen in the semifinals of the Speed Chess Championship and in February he reached the semifinals of the Opera Euro Rapid.

Ian Nepomniachtchi

We're looking at 482 games for Nepomniachtchi. The Russian grandmasters sadly had to cancel his Tata Steel participation which means his only OTB tournament during the pandemic was the Russian Championship, which he won. It was his second national title, exactly 10 years after the first. Even though it's been four months now, this victory must give Nepo a good vibe when he is touching the pieces again next week.

In the major online tournaments, Nepomniachtchi reached two finals. In the Legends of Chess event, he lost to Carlsen, and only a few weeks ago he came second in the Magnus Carlsen Invitational as he lost to Giri in the final.

Fabiano Caruana

Caruana hasn't played as much as some of his rivals as we count "only" 313 games for him. On the other hand, the top American grandmaster played the most over-the-board games as anyone in the field: five in the Bundesliga, 15 at Norway Chess (including the armageddons), and 13 in Wijk aan Zee for a total of 33.

Caruana travel Yekaterinburg
Of all the participants, Caruana's travel from Yekaterinburg back home last year was probably the most unpleasant.

He finished fourth in Norway and afterward noted that there were some distractions for him during the tournament. He had been in regular contact with FIDE and the federation had to postpone the Candidates during Norway Chess.

"During the tournament we were constantly kind of dealing with the Candidates, wondering if it would happen or not," said Caruana. "The general feeling was that it wouldn't happen, even before it became clear that there was just no way it could happen on November 1."

In Wijk aan Zee, Caruana finished in a solid shared third place with an undefeated 8/13 with wins against GM Radoslaw Wojtaszek, GM Alexander Donchenko but also MVL:

Online, Caruana reached the final of the Clutch Chess Champions Showdown where he lost to GM Wesley So. He lost another final vs. Carlsen, that of the Clutch Chess International, and got eliminated in the first round of the Chess.com Speed Chess Championship as he lost to GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda.

As his most recent tweet suggests, we might see Caruana with an Intel-sponsored outfit in Yekaterinburg.

Anish Giri

Giri was the most active player of all (and not just on Twitter!), having recorded a stunning 722 games in the database. His excellent Tata Steel Chess Tournament was his only OTB tournament though. Giri scored an undefeated 8.5/13 but saw his compatriot GM Jorden van Foreest taking the trophy instead.

Giri had quite a few online successes. He reached the final of the Chessable Masters where he lost to Carlsen but went on to win the semi-serious Mr Dodgy Invitational. The Dutchman's loss to Nepomniachtchi in the semifinal of the Legends of Chess event was decent but he gave himself a great confidence boost by winning the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, this time beating Nepomniachtchi in the final.

Wang Hao

Of all the participants, GM Wang Hao is the biggest mystery. Looking in the database, we only find six games from the FIDE Online Nations Cup (back in May 2020) and 14 games in the Hainan Danzhou GM tournament (in December), both played online.

In the Online Nations Cup, Wang beat GM Vidit Gujrathi but lost two games to Caruana. The Hainan Danzhou event was also rapid and also there, Wang didn't do great. He scored 5.5/14 and finished in a tie for last place with GM Veselin Topalov.

Via an exchange of emails, Wang informed Chess.com that he also participated in two rapid tournaments in China that didn't make it to the databases. One was a double round-robin tournament with e.g. GM Ding Liren, GM Wei Yi, and GM Yu Yangyi. Wei won and Wang scored 50 percent. The other one was a team tournament, where Wang finished on a plus-two score.

Wang Hao Candidates chess
Wang Hao in his game with Caruana last year. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

To remind everyone of Wang's strength, here's his win vs. Ding from the first round of the Candidates, annotated by GM Yermolinsky.

Alexander Grischuk

For GM Alexandser Grischuk, there are 418 games but not a single one over-the-board as he was missing at the Russian Championship.

Early in the pandemic, Grischuk won the Play For Russia charity blitz tournament, beating GM Evgeny Tomashevsky in the final. Otherwise, his online results haven't been great.

He finished in last place in the FIDE Online Steinitz Memorial and narrowly missed out on the knockout phase of the Lindores Abbey Tournament. Grischuk did qualify for the knockout of the Chessable Masters but didn't reach the K.O. phase of the Airthings Masters.

Alexander Grischuk candidates chess
Alexander Grischuk. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Grischuk's biggest win in 2020 was against Carlsen, at the Saint Louis Rapid tournament in September. GM Dejan Bojkov annotates:

Ding Liren

GM Ding Liren played 221 games that made it to the database, but not a single game was played over the board. In general, it's difficult to say something meaningful about rapid and blitz games played online, but that's especially the case for Ding as he had to play many major events late in the evening or even in the middle of the night.

He did well in the first edition of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, the first major online event after the Candidates was stopped. Ding finished second in the Swiss segment where he defeated Carlsen 3-1 in their mini-match but then lost the semifinal against the same opponent 2.5-1.5.

Ding qualified for the knockout phase of the Lindores Abbey but lost to GM Daniil Dubov in the semifinal. He finished second in the Hainan Danzhou rapid tournament.

Ding Liren Candidates chess
Ding Liren's disappointing 2.5/7 was the biggest surprise of last year's seven rounds in Yekaterinburg. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Kirill Alekseenko

Looking at GM Kirill Alekseenko, we find 263 games but 182 of those were played in Chess.com's Titled Tuesday tournaments. Together with Wang, the 23-year-old Russian grandmaster is a big question mark for this event. He won't be fighting for first place, but he can definitely play spoiler if he comes to Yekaterinburg in good form.

Kirill Alekseenko Candidates
Kirill Alekseenko, last year in YekaterinburgPhoto: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

After such a strange year of chess, where most of their activity, like everyone's, has been online, the players will need to adjust and return to "offline chess" again, with real pieces and a long time control. One thing is clear: both the players and the fans will be looking forward to this moment tremendously. One week to go!


Correction: an earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Vachier-Lagrave lost six games in Wijk aan Zee. He lost four.


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